Film Fund-amentals: The Numbers Game

As far as Hollywood is concerned, the most important person in the country is the mythic white male teenager who lives in his parents’ basement, reads comic books, plays video games, has no significant social life, and goes to movies as an alternative to the more physically demanding task of dating girls. This kid is the primary movie-goer and must be served.

Most major Hollywood movies are pitched primarily — often, exclusively — to this market. The reasons are simple: they go to movies more often than older audiences (though those figures appear to be dropping), and they make up a whopping 21.2 percent of the population (based upon the 2000 US Census Summary figures for population age 10 to 24 years). Of course, this census report is both males and females (roughly a fifty-fifty split), so we can actually drop the figure to a mighty 10.6 percent. Then you have to figure that out of those figures, only a small percentage might ever actually go to a given movie, so we can shave the figure down to 10 percent of the previous total (though the real figure more likely hovers between 1 to 5 percent) and that gives us a gigantic count of 1.6 percent. No wonder this huge, thunderous crowd is so wildly sought after by Hollywood execs. After all, these guys are certainly more likely to buy popcorn at hyper-inflated prices.

Admittedly, 1.6 percent of the US population is still a pretty hefty market. It easily makes sense to spend anywhere from $10 to $15 million bucks chasing after this crowd. You should be able to just as easily rake in around $40-some million off the boys at your opening weekend, at which point you can simply coast into DVD release. Take for example the movie Watchmen…Oops.

With an opening weekend of $55.2 million, Watchmen aced the model I just presented. Its steep drop the next weekend still exceeded the income projected above. The movie has done a really fantastic job of getting the targeted audience into the theaters. Too bad the movie cost somewhere between $130 and $160 million to make (not counting the legal bills). Even with its current global gross of $136.4 million, Watchmen will need a super accountant to barely break even.

Ironically, this 1.6 percent audience is the intended target for virtually every budget-busting tent pole movie currently slated for production. Likewise, the model I just offered will be the box office outcome for the vast majority of these movies. To make it even worse, just factor in the current economic situation and the steep drop at the box office that is bound to come. Then we can make it really scary by suggesting the high possibility that the current state of global financial crisis will result in a radical change in taste by the movie-going public (much like what happened at the start of the Great Depression — it resulted in a change in public interest that altered the entire face of Hollywood).

Meanwhile, you have large segments of the potential audience that are being totally ignored. Sure, they are older and crankier. Gosh, some of them are even in their 40s. They go to movies less often (though most studies have never bothered to find out if they simply can’t find anything worth going too — this is a question that needs to be asked, but nobody in Hollywood actually wants to hear the answer). When they do go to the movies, they tend to be more evenly split on gender lines (which increases the potential size of the audience).

They have more money than the 1.6 percent crowd, but most of it is tied up in depleted houses and their vanishing IRAs (however, the 1.6-ers are more likely to be working the counter of a fast food joint, which puts a limit on their income). They tend to be more interested in scripts and actors than special effects. They are more likely to go see Slumdog Millionaire than Watchmen.

Oh yeah, that film. Slumdog Millionaire has already taken in $133 million in the US (double that global). It was a low-budget movie ($15 million — see above model) targeted at an older audience. Nowhere in the movie does anyone wear a cape and tights.

So what is it about teenage boys that make them such a hot target audience? I haven’t a clue. The only theory I have ever heard that almost make sense has to do with the notion that the average Hollywood studio executive suffers from a state of arrested adolescence, and that they are attracted to this audience for the same reason that they cannot take their eyes away from the nearest mirror. I call it the Carly Simon theory. The older audience who listened to pop music back in the 1970s will know where I am going with this.

— Dennis Toth